Complaints about damage from pesticide drift in Mississippi this season have been sharply lower than last year.

“We're seeing a much different situation with drift this year than in 2006,” Mike Tagert, director of the Bureau of Plant Industry, said at the summer rice policy meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation at Cleveland.

“There are a lot of different reasons, but no clear-cut explanation. I suspect the biggest reason is the light that was focused on the problem last year by many commodity groups, including rice.

“We had a record 128 complaints about drift last year, the vast majority of them related to aerial applications.”

This year, to mid-July, Tagert said, only 30 complaints had been reported to his agency and acted on. Thirteen of those were related to aerial applications, nine were related to ground rigs, and the rest involved landscape/gardens. Only two were related to rice — one aerial and one ground.

“That's still too many, but nonetheless an across-the-board improvement over last year,” Tagert said.

Because of the significantly higher wheat acreage this past winter, there was concern that there might be a lot of drift complaints. “Fortunately that hasn't happened; thus far, we've only had four complaints reported to us involving drift from wheat applications; two were aerial, two ground.”

The agency presently has seven complaints that are incomplete, pending investigation and/or awaiting lab results.

“Regrettably, lab response time this year has been slowed considerably due to all the testing related to the pet food contaminated with melamine from China,” Tagert said. The situation with contaminated catfish imports also complicated matters.

“Testing labs nationally have been processing thousands of samples, which is a main reason we've had such a hard time getting our drift complaint test samples back. Only three labs in the Southeast are equipped to do this. I've got some samples that were submitted May 31, and I'm still waiting for results.”

Tagert said he has discussed this with the state chemist, “and everyone recognizes there are going to be times when they can't process large numbers of samples in a matter of days. In the future, we're going to try and designate a backup laboratory so we can have more timely results.”

The Mississippi State Chemical Lab is a part of the Institutions Of Higher Learning system, he noted, and in the last three or four years there have been ongoing budget problems — “there has been no discretionary funding in the university system to cover a lot of these situations, such as this year with the huge numbers of tests related to pet food contamination.

“They understand how important these tests are for farmers, that a lot is riding on them, and they truly have done everything they can to minimize the problem.”

Last year, Tagert said, his agency had 19 cases that were prosecuted, all involving private certified applicators with ground rigs. All were penalized, with fines ranging from $250 to $1,500, and an average $750. “All were first-time offenders, and that was factored into the penalties.”

Queried about penalties assessed against aerial applicators, he responded: “I have no idea; their complaints are handled by the Mississippi Aerial Applicators Association, although their conclusions are based on analyses and investigatory information we present to them.”

In response to a question about the effectiveness of that arrangement, Tagert said, “Mississippi is the only state I know of that has two different organizations handling these complaints. That's a decision of the state's lawmakers, but in my opinion it's a very inefficient system.”

He said GPS logging systems in spray planes are now “a very good tool to help establish what happened” in drift complaints.